Ann’s son becomes independent reader

I interviewed Ann recently about her thoughts on reading.  Ann is an education policy researcher and mom.  Ann and her husband live in Seattle, Washington. 

Let’s talk first about your own memories about reading as a child.  I’m the youngest in a huge family –14 kids!  We lived in a big house in the boonies in Wyoming.  When I was really little, there were five of us sleeping in the bedroom at night ─ages were youngest up to 10 or 11. My mom would come into our room and read to us at night – something like a chapter book that she would read to all of us. It wasn’t an every night thing. I also remember some of my older siblings reading out loud to us. They didn’t seem to mind ─ especially some of my brothers. They would use different accents ─ it was like a performance to them.

What kind of books did you read?  When you come from a big family you get a bit of everything. Some of the books I remember being read to ─Little House in the Big Woods and The Hobbit.

Where did you get books when you were little?  We were a reading family ─ always had books around. We lived out in the country outside Cheyenne. The book mobile, a traveling program of the library, would come by once a week. We would get books from the book mobile or we would go into town to the library sometimes. And once I started school there was the school library.

Was owning books important when you were growing up?  Mom was a huge reader ─ she read fiction and nonfiction. Dad only had an eighth grade education and he did not like to read. I only remember him reading the newspaper. Having kids of all different ages, you ended up having lots of books around. There were books from school and book fairs.  I remember the Tolkien series, The Lord of the Rings, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Dr. Seuss. The whole range through young adult.  And encyclopedias – before there was Internet we had encyclopedias that I liked to look through. It’s such a different experience now ─ my experience of my son vs. my own relationship to my siblings and parents.

What is the reading process like in your home now?  With  my  son, it’s a very different experience from how I grew up. Reading together every single night is a total ritual with us.

How did reading become ritualized in your home?  At one point it became institutionalized but I can’t remember when it started. At the infant stage we were not reading to him. It might have started around the transition from nursing. I nursed my son to a late age, about three and a half years. Toward the end of that period, I was nursing once a day at bedtime. So the nightly reading together might have been around the time he stopped nursing. We lived then in a tiny townhouse in another city. My son had a toddler bed that was located in our bedroom. So I’d read to him in either our bed or his. In the bigger house, I’m able to sit with him in his bed, read together, say our prayers, and turn out the light after he falls asleep. One of the reasons I have come to treasure this time – as a working parent, you feel like you don’t have that much kid time. So, you really appreciate the closeness that comes with reading together. Maybe for parents that don’t work outside the home they don’t  crave that time, or if you have more kids you have to be a little less “doting,” if that’s the right word. Our son is an only child and I have really wanted that bonding time with him.

How has the reading ritual changed over the years with your son?  My son and I are at an interesting  turning point. Just in the past six months or so, he has completely taken off as an independent reader. This has caused a real change in the relationship. It’s something I have been thinking about a lot lately. As he becomes an independent reader, we have started to butt heads some ─ I’m reading out loud to him and he wants to be reading a different book. I tell him he can’t read another book while I’m reading but he insists he can.

Maybe he thinks he can “multi-task?”  Yes, he does.

Can you say more about the changes you’re going through?  Since the second grade started, my son is totally into the Geronimo Stilton series.  There must be 50 books in the series. Geronimo is a mouse reporter who travels the world and solves mysteries. My son has said on a couple of occasions, he wants to read these books to himself. Though he loves me to read them to him, he knows that he may get more time to stay up if he reads them on his own. Also, those are some of the books where I’ve sort of said, you know, you can read this on your own, so why don’t we read something together that is harder.

What about him reading his books out loud to you during reading times together?  We did this more in kindergarten and first grade because I was interested then in practice reading with him and really seeing how he was doing at reading. Now he’s an advanced reader. Though I like to hear him read out loud, he’s not crazy about it. He’s tired and it’s bedtime and he wants to relax during reading time. He’s more open to reading out loud to me in the afternoon sometimes.

What do you think about this transition to becoming his own reader?  It’s so gratifying as a parent ─ and as a sort of a bookish parent ─ that he has become his own reader. I always longed for this day. If you’re a person who loves books, you want this for your child too.

Have you used your reading time for conversations too, suggested by the reading?  Yes, we have done this for a long time. For example, we started reading Harry Potter last year. We have gone through book five of seven. There are some dark themes. We definitely stopped and talked about them. They basically torture a lot of people to death in the stories. We have had conversations about that. And words that a typical seven year old would not know. I don’t like to be super didactic. But these plots are complicated and we have stretched out the reading over time, so often I will remind him how this thing relates to the last book, etc.

Does he want coherence – does he care about the coherence of the stories in books such as Harry Potter? Because he’s just chilling out sometimes in reading at bedtime, I know he’s not always paying super close attention. But there are times he asks, “what does this mean” ─ he comes out of his haze and asks what is happening. Other times I will call his attention to it. All this is a careful balance.

What are your son’s favorite topics for books?  He’s into all things wizard and related fantasy stuff and mythical beasts. He loves mythologies ─ Greek, Roman, Egyptian, global. And, of course, Geronimo Stilton which I think he discovered at the school library and also from the public library. Before Geronimo, there was Harry Potter. My son has dressed up as a wizard for Halloween for four years running. He also likes fairy tales ─ actually he loves the whole idea of an alternate universe.

Did you pick out the reading topics for your son when he was younger?  When he was younger I was concerned that some of the books out there are crap ─ they read like ad copy. I didn’t want to say no, that’s crap if your kid loves it. But I wanted to also pull him in other directions. So we did some of both. Sometimes he would ask me to read something he was interested in, and then there were times I would suggest, “why don’t we read something I’m interested in myself.” Now that he’s an independent reader, if he wants to me to read something I think is crap, I’m more assertive and say, “you can read this on your own, I don’t want to read that.”

Where will your reading rituals go in the future, as your son becomes more independent?  If it tapers off, I will miss it. But I’m so delighted that he’s become a strong reader. I will still read for quite a while to him I think. That’s his momma time, when he gets one-on-one time with me. I don’t think he will want to end it any time soon but am ok if he wants to read to himself. Bed time is around 8 p.m. and lights out around 8:30 p.m. We try to do reading time for half an hour before sleep. On nights he wants to read on his own, I sometimes lose track of the time and assume he has fallen asleep. But 9:00 p.m. might roll around and he’s still reading. I will be happy to see him tackle the kind of books he can tackle next as an advanced reader ─ like The Hobbit. I think I was reading The Hobbit in fifth grade but I would not be surprised if he was not reading this soon.

Do you use e-readers in your home?  What do you think about technology and reading?  We’re kind of “luddites” in our home ─ none of us have e-readers.  We have a laptop  and we all do some reading on it. We limit our son to a half hour on the computer and he usually uses this time to play games. I read the newspaper online on a fairly regular basis. My husband reads all kinds of random stuff on the computer.  We’re mostly “old school” people – we read paper.

What about your son ─ is he wanting to use technology more?  My son is begging for an iPad. I would not be surprised if he asked for an e-reader soon. I don’t see a lot of this among the kids at school yet. As he gets older and his friends have technology, he will probably be more attuned to it. The iPad thing came up over the summer when we were visiting family in Wyoming. My sister had just gotten an iPad and he played with it a lot. So that got him begging for it. But right now he’s not that exposed to a whole lot of gadgetry.

Are you seeing a lot of technology at the public library?  I don’t see e- readers available at the library.  They certainly have computers. Honestly, I only use computers as a card catalog at the library. I don’t know if they’re available for other things. Regarding the whole library issue, I’m the parent who is less involved with trips to the library; my husband usually does this ─that’s their thing. Mostly they get books to check out. I don’t know what the limit is, but I’m pretty sure  my son reaches it  ─ brings home seven or eight books and a  video or two.  My husband also checks out books. It’s cute when they go. My son is independent ─he doesn’t need anybody’s help picking out books. They each go to different sections and find their own books.

Is your son interested in what you’re reading?  Oh yes. He’s so inquisitive. So often what I am reading is not at all appropriate for him and that’s hard to handle.  I think this may be related to his being an only child. Only children often do not distinguish between adult and child material ─they think of themselves as adults   For example, I was reading something that involved horrible human abuse — about a poor woman growing up in Afghanistan. He was asking and asking questions about it. I don’t want to totally protect him from the horrors of humanity but want to try to give him a balance.

Final thoughts about reading?  At this interesting transition time with my son, it’s fun to talk and think about it.

This concluded my interview with Ann. I’m struck by the differences between Ann’s childhood growing up in a huge family, emerging herself as a strong reader – and her close relationship with her only child, using reading together through a nightly ritual for entertainment, bonding, and helping her son to develop his reading skills.  Reading independently is clearly a key milestone for both of them.  

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